By Jane Recker
It’s estimated that there are at least 85,000 Elvis impersonators in the world. None of the other 85,499 can hold a candle to Eddie Clendening in Heartbreak Hotel.
Eight times a week, the King is resurrected from his early grave to grace the stage of the Broadway Playhouse with his growling and shaking.
Sadly, an impressive impersonation is all Heartbreak Hotel can offer. Thanks to a sloppy book and painfully cliche directing, the all-star cast whip it into high gear to create unparalleled musical numbers that are the only thing keeping the show from tanking.
Intended as a prequel to Million Dollar Quartet, Heartbreak Hotel tries to tell the story of Elvis’ beginnings as an entertainer. Featuring such hits as Blue Suede Shoes, Jailhouse Rock and Heartbreak Hotel, the show endeavors to explain Elvis’ exploitation by his self-serving manager, Colonel Tom Parker (Jerry Kernion) and his rocky relationship with his first love, Dixie Locke (Erin Burnston).
It doesn’t sound like a lot to tackle, but somehow the show is unable to weave the tale in two hours—thanks largely to poor transitions and fatty dialogue. The girlfriend drifts in and out sans explanation; conflicts are introduced but never resolved; and, worst of all, Elvis’ sticky relation with black artists (he was a champion and friend to many but ultimately did make a name for himself appropriating their music) is heavily referenced through the show, but never confronted head on.
Perhaps this sloppy, patchy writing could be forgiven were the fantastic performers allowed to interpret writer and director Floyd Mutrux’s self-indulgent script to the best of their professional abilities. After all, the cast is stacked with all-stars such as Burnston, who sparkled as June in Chicago Shakes’ Gypsy, and Colte Julian who played the role of Jerry Lee Louis to packed houses in Million Dollar Quartet. Even they couldn’t save this book thanks to Mutrux’s unimaginative directing. If a character is angry, they yell every word. If a character is sad, they look to the ground and mumble. If a character is Jewish, they wring their hands and moan in a menschy voice so outlandishly offensive it makes Family Guy’s Mort Goldman look like a respectful portrayal of the Jewish community.
The only thing keeping this production from sinking into its own filth are the musical acts; they are perfection. As mentioned before, Clendening is Elvis incarnate, complete with the puckered lips and gyrating hips. The onstage live band comprised of the show’s actors is surprisingly lively and slick, and the harmonies from the background singers are are so tight as to be almost inextricably linked. Combine that great music with sequined dresses, poodle skirts and power suits and you’ve got yourself a situation where the Elvis super-mix after the bows becomes the best part of the show.
Moral of the story, if you’re looking for a musical with actors playing instruments onstage and a compelling storyline, go see American Blues’ Buddy (Read our review here). Heartbreak Hotel can’t hold a candle to that magnificent production.
But if you’re an Elvis die-hard who never got to experience the King in the flesh, getting to watch Clendening work it onstage is the closest you’re going to get to the real thing.
Broadway in Chicago presents “Heartbreak Hotel” through October 28 at the Broadway Playhouse, 175 E Chestnut Street, Chicago. More information and tickets may be found here. Photos by Brett Beiner.